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Shamanism in Korea Research Paper


Shamanism in Korea involves the religious beliefs and practices of the indigenous people in Korea. The term which modern Koreans use to refer to shamanism is Muism or Mugyo implying religion in praise of gods. Mudang is the name given to a shaman in the society. The main function of the mudang is to act as a mediator between the gods and people. The mudang is usually a woman. Shamans are consulted by people who need help from the spiritual world. Shamans preside over religious services like the gut.

During this service, the Shaman calls upon the gods and spirits. She dresses up regularly in diverse set of clothes symbolizing a range of gods and spirits she calls for. The “spirits can be gods and saints from the traditional Buddhism religion, Jesus, Mary and angels among other prominent figures in the Christian religion or even people who have died in the modern societies like MacArthur” ( Pentikäinen 7). During this service, people offer their prayers.

The shaman interprets the messages delivered from the spirits to the people. The Kut service is held in the event of functions like death to escort the person to the new world, during ordination of new shamans or even driving away evil spirits from people. The shamans have the power tom heal people. The shamans appease gods through the functions so that they can receive favor from the spirits.


Korean society is not dominated with one religion just like other Asians on the Eastern side. Many Koreans became converts of Buddhism once it was introduced in the country. However, Muism was still influential even among the Koreans who had converted to Buddhism.

The religion was also influenced by Christianity which was introduced by the missionaries during the colonial period. Missionaries preached against the traditional Korean way of Worship. Afterwards, many of the Koreans became Christian converts. Korea’s indigenous religion is re-emerging. In Northern and Southern Korea, we have many as many as 300 000 mudangs presiding over religious matters ( Owens 25).

Indigenous Koreans belief in the existence of a world which is inhabited by gods and spirits. Millions of gods, spirits and ghosts exist in that world. For instance, gods governing heaven and Sansin, the spirits that control mountain.

Other gods who dwell in caves, trees, stones as well the ghosts of people who died long time ago are found, in this world. The spirits have the power over people and therefore can influence people’s lives. The spirits have the power to harm people. Koreans ensured that they followed the desires of the spirits to avoid annoying them. Shamanism is based on the culture of the indigenous people.

In the indigenous societies, the shaman played the role of a medicine man as well as a, magician. He was different from other priests and healers because of his ability to pay visits to the spiritual world. During this time, the souls parts from the body and joins with other spirits. The spirits guided him and gave him powers over illnesses. Shamans dealt with physical, psychological and spiritual problems encountered by people.

Through guidance and cancelling, they relieved people from stress. They casted out demons and healed mental disorders like madness. They were very superstitious, they believed in sorcery and witchcraft. They believed that some people had the power to cast spells on other people which caused harm. It was the work of the shaman to heal bewitched people (Keith 45).

Shamans are of two types. There are those people who get possessed with spirits also referred to as charismatic shamans. Secondly, there are people who are born in a family of shamans and who inherit the powers from the parents. Charismatic shamans are found in northern part of the country. They are commonly referred to as Naerim Mudang. Such people, become gain powers after suffering from Sinbyong, a disease which is regarded as a shamanistic calling sign.

After she is receives the calls, he joins another shaman who teaches her the skills and knowledge of the new profession. The shaman performs certain rites n the new shaman which changes her to a full shaman. During the rites, their souls leave them and move to the spiritual world where they meet and interact with ancestors and spirits. Those who inherit the profession are referred to as Tangol Mudang.

They are mainly found on the southern part of Korea. They simply become shamans because their parents or among the ancestors was a shaman. Trance possession is of three types in Korea. Upon the death of a person, a rite called Chinogwi-Kut is performed by the Naerim Mudang aimed at escorting the spirit of the dead person to the next world. In this case, she soothes the family of the dead person.

Hereditary Shamans perform another rite after death has occurred. The “shaman communicates with the deceased person who responds through the possessed member of the family by causing shaking in the basket if the answer to the question is yes; the deceased person however expresses his sorrow through talking” (Lee 8). Finally another rite is performed by charismatic shamans where he gives his costume to his patient. After getting possessed, the client jumps up and as she dances to the tune of the drum.

A shaman played two, major roles, a healer and a mediator. Shamans got healing powers from the spiritual world. Once in the spirit world, the shaman may have several spirits guiding her on the journey.

The shaman is always possessed with the spirits but there are some spirits which he only comes across when in trance. They instruct him or her on what to do. The shaman is a go between spirits and people. Message is passed from the spirits to the people through the shaman. They had power to communicate with dead persons which helped in settling disputes.

Some communities associate animals with spirits. for instance, sea duck is take to bet to be a “spirit animal among the Selkups because it dives in water and fly in air, the duck therefore belongs to upper and the world below” ( Lee30). The same individuality are ascribed to water fowl amongst Siberians. The Jaguars is a spirit animal among the Native American. It walks on earth, swims and climbs trees.

The shamans governed all the spiritual performance for instance offering sacrifices. Artistic basics were passed from one age bracket to a different through age bracket word of mouth. Shamans played a major role passing information through songs and story telling. Shamanism is different from one place to another but there are common beliefs among them. They all belief in existence of spirits in human beings which help people incase of problems.

They “believe that spirits are either good or bad” (Lee 31). There are those which bring good fortune to the societal members while other may harm the society. Shamans are diviners and their spirits parts with the body to supernatural world to search for solution of various problems

The government of Korea has from time to time attempted to eradicate shamanism in the country but have not succeded. Many shamans were persecuted by government as an attempt to end the religion during the reign of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee. Shamanism serves important functions in human beings and that’s the reason behind its existence even after the persecutions.

The religion stems from the experience of spirits which make it different from other religions like Islam, Buddhism and Christianity which are based on a particular doctrine and scriptures. The government on the southern part of Korea has begun to appreciate shamanist religious practices like songs and dances as important aspects of Korean culture.

Tourists who visit the country are entertained with some Korean practices which were not allowed before 1970s. International hotels and restaurants call upon the shamans to perform a ritual of purification to bless them before setting up a new hotel. Shamanism is popular among indigenous Koran. They believe that solutions to their problems are achieved through the help of a shaman.

In the event of sicknesses, they visit a shaman for healing. This has been a great disadvantage to them because many people have lost lives. Patients visit a shaman instead of visiting a doctor who will diagnose them and treat them according to their sickness. The possibility of wrong medication is high because they do not diagnose which makes it possible for them to administer wrong drugs ( Lee 56).

Shamanism has greatly been impacted by technology and scientific inventions. In the field of medicine, psychiatry has contributed to decline in the belief of shamans. Psychiatrist a specialist in the treatment of mental disorders has proven to be more accurate in treatment than a shaman.

According to Leee,”psychiatrists go beyond a shaman in examining a patient; they perform laboratory tests before prescribing the medication” (35). In addition to this, they do complicated examinations on the patient like surgery which a shaman can not do. As a result of this, many people have shifted their believe to the new scientific methods used by doctors today because they are accurate. Many people have now begun to lose their faith in shamans.

The doctor diagnoses an individual before prescribing the necessary medication. This reduces the probability of wrong medication which may further affect the patient’s health. Shamans mainly use herbals to cure diseases. Some shamans may pretend to know the cure of some diseases when, in the real sense do not know. They may also do experiments with some herbs to patients to determine what disease a particular herb can cure.

These herbs can further affect the health of people. The advantage that a doctor has over a shaman is what makes the role of shaman diminish in today’s Korea people. Medical doctors specialize in all types of diseases. Research is also continuing in effort to determine cure of diseases like HIV and Aids. Diseases initially regarded as wrath from ancestors by indigenous Koreans have been proved to be normal and treatable ( Lee 70).

The modern government of Korea is another draw back to indigenous shamanism. The modern Korean government is against it classifying it as superstition. The government encourages them to adapt modern religions like Christianity and Islam. The religion is regarded as outdated and useless because of the beliefs of the people.

This is the reason why the government prosecuted shamans so as to discourage them from the practice. Shamanism is however deep among the rural communities and the government has not managed to completely end the practice. Rural and indigenous communities however place a lot of value on the religion because it links them to their ancestors. It is through the shamans that the communities communicate with their gods. Banning the religion is a means of ending the link between the two ( Lee 83).

Laurel Kendall the author of Shamans, Nostalgia and the IMF: South Korean popular religion in Motion wet into deep studies of Shamanism in Korea for a long period of time. He studied the shamans in contemporary Korean society and came up with interesting and helpful information.

His study considers shamans as remains of past because they represent the indigenous practices of the Korean people. His study over a long period of time showed that shamanism changed from time to time. Laurel went ahead to study shamanism as well as the modern communities which were undergoing changes as a result of modernization and industrialization.

His ethnographic studies produced rich and reliable information because he interacted with the people during his study. Getting information directly from the respondent is an efficient way of data collection. He collected information from different shamans and studied a variety of rituals in the community. Her writings include the narratives and theories which he composed from his studies. According to her, IMF has greatly shamanism in Korea.

The relationship between causes of magic and the changes brought about boy modernization are based on the IMF. Laurels field work intensive studies mainly focused on female shamans and their clients. She wanted to study the portrayal of women in the society. After the study, she found that the society went through social, political, economic as well as material changes which caused erosion of the tradition cultures. The shamans were however against the changes brought about by modernity (Kendall 20).

Laurel suggests that popular religious practices keep on changing and therefore they should be studied in the present state. This is because they keep, on eliminating some of the practices and at the same time they bring in new practices. She asserts that shamans still exist in the modernized Korean cities.

Shamans from the North and Southern America never liked addressing themselves as shamans. Addressing one-self as a shaman showed that one was not a true shaman. Plastic medicine men and women was the term commonly used to refer to individuals who addressed themselves as shamans in America during 1980s.

People believed that effectiveness of a shaman was determined by the clients and other shamans. An individual became a potential shaman after other people addressed him as one. Many shamans and traditional healers were poor and people considered poverty as important in the practice. In America, some shamans worked full time while others worked part-time during evenings and weekends.

Shamanism in America has however changed. Many of the shamans in America today are European migrants who have undergone some training in mystery school. One such example is Michael Harner. They mainly reside in the cities and are ready to serve people from all the communities. They consider their work a profession just like any other job and they charge a certain fee for the services they provide to the people (Kendall 50).

Modern shamans advertise their work which makes them different from the traditional shamans who worked under them influence of gods and spirits. Modern shamans use psychological knowledge in provision of their services.

In many cases, they use their knowledge, influence peoples thoughts for their own private gain. The client may pay a lot of money but end up getting no assistance. People are now confused because they do not know who to run to. Differentiating between a potential and non-potential shaman is a problem because they are found in all streets.

Shamans in the traditional societies did not charge people for the services they provided. Modern shamans exploit people by charging a lot of money based on the assumption that it’s a profession. Shamanism is however valued in modern Korean and American societies. It is considered a main source of healing. Some community members have faith in shamans than in doctors. In cases of sickness, they take their patients to traditional doctors.

Shamans have the power to for-see what is going to happen in future. Through the power of the spirits, they can tell what caused particular sicknesses. Witchcraft is a common source of illnesses among indigenous Koreans. A shaman has the power to cast away spells after which the patients heals. This is impossible among modern doctors which make it hard for shamanism to completely diminish (Kendall 170).

The culture of indigenous Koreans has also been influenced by exotic religions from other countries. Rituals and practices from Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam and Confucianism religions were absorbed and intermingled with the practices of their indigenous religion.

It is difficult to differentiate exotic from non-exotic cultures because all the cultures are intermingled into lone culture. Taoism is a polytheist religion which originated from china. It was introduced during the three kingdom period in Korea .It is a minor but influential religion in Korea. The doctrine of immorality and the worship of the mountain gods is the basis of this religion. Taoism is the common religion in Eastern Asia.

The practices of Taoism have spread to countries like Korea and Japan. Taoism religion is characterized by charms, prayers and rituals which deal with problems regarding psychological and physical health. In the event of special occasions and worship held in temples people burn joss paper. This is a kind of offering specifically made to the spiritual word as a mark of people’s sincerity.

This is also done to please spirits and ancestors. Festivals are important in Taoism religion. Spring festival and dragon boat festival borrowed from the Chinese society are examples of festivals in this religion. Taoists have two types of prayers. During special occasions and festivals, Taoist priests conduct ritual prayers. Common followers of the Taoist religion conduct morning and evening prayers to seek for blessings from god.

This are referred to as common prayers. The Chinese held rituals during birth and marriage ceremonies to give thanks to their ancestor and colour red was mainly used. The Chinese performed rituals upon the death of a person to escort his spirit to the new world (Kendall 180).

The missionaries arrived in Korea in 1794 ten years after the baptism of the first Korean who had gone to Beijing on a visit. Writings of Matteo Ricci a Jesuit missionary had however been present in the country from China back in the seventeenth century. These writings inspired many scholars of that time. Korean government was against Christianity because the converts discarded their cultural practices.

The law against “Christianity was not enforced strictly even though some Catholics were executed in the seventeenth century” (Chongho 20). The number of Christian converts continued to increase in the country. This led to persecution which caused death of many Christians. In 1980, protestant missionaries and catholic priests came to Korea where many people became Christian converts. Missionaries from the Methodist and Presbyterian churches also visited the country.

They developed institutions like schools, hospitals and orphanages. In the institutions, Christian doctrine was taught which led to conversion of many people. The Christian doctrine penetrated to interior societies where shamanism was practiced. Many local people became Christians and discarded their traditional way of worship. Muslims were also found in Korea.

Some of the Muslims had converted in the course of the Korean War while others had moved into the country from Asia for employment purposes. Seoul was the largest mosque located at Itaewon city. Smaller mosques were also found in the smaller cities. People from Bangladesh and Pakistan also visited the country for job opportunities. Islam religion therefore became common and some indigenous Koreans became Muslim converts.

International Monetary Fund is an organization formed by 187 countries. It was formed in 1945 with the aim of coming up with policies to monitor money. They also wanted to come up with a standard way of exchanging currency as well as stable systems of payment which could be accepted by all member states.

IMF also trains its member states on systems of financial management, systems of taxation and banking systems which help in boosting the economy of a country.IMF also creates a good environment for foreign, transactions to take place. Its head quarters are located in Washington. Each country is supposed to pay a certain amount to IMF depending on its ability to pay. The main function of the organization is to financially support countries with low income. The organization also gives loans to the member states (Chongho 40).

International Monetary Fund has been influential to indigenous shamanism in Korea.IMF has contributed to erosion of Korean Indigenous practices especially shamanism, because of several reasons.IMF has made easened some activities like education, transport and employment opportunities since an individual can exchange currency in whatever country he or she moves to.IMF allows movement from one country to another. Missionaries for example have found it easy to travel to Korea and spread the Christian doctrines.

When they visit the country, they convert the currency and life continues as usual. Students move from Korea for studies in other countries. During the course of their studies, they meet and socialize with people from other countries. Some get assimilated so that they forget their own culture while others borrow cultural practices from other students. In the course of the study, some Korean citizens intermarry with people from other cultural groups (Chongho 50).

International Monetary Fund has made it easy for tourists to move from one country to another. Once tourists move from Korea to other countries, they learn other cultural practices. Tourists move for pleasure. Once they come across practices which favor them, they adopt them. On the other hand, tourists from other countries which visit Korea take with them their cultural practices some of which are incorporated by indigenous Koreans.IMF has contributed to employment opportunities across nations.

Member states are free to work and receive equal right in other countries. Indigenous Koreans may get a job in another country. After a long period of time, the person forgets of his traditional religion. People migrate and gain citizenship in other countries. A Korean who has permanently migrated to other countries is likely to forget their practices and get absorbed in the culture of their neighbors (Chongho 90).


Religion is an important cultural element. Societies have different ways of worshipping. All cultures are equal; there is no culture which is superior to another. People should therefore respect other people’s culture.

International Monetary Fund has contributed to erosion shamanism in Korea because it allows for interaction between people of different cultures. However, shamanism has not diminished completely. It is still valued and the role played by shamans is still recognized among some indigenous Koreans (Chongho 100).

Works Cited

Chongho, Kim. Korean Shamanism: the cultural paradox. Washington Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2003

Keith, Howard. Korean shamanism: revivals, survivals, and change. London: Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, Seoul Press, 1990.

Kendall, Laurel. Nostalgias and the IMF. New York: University of Hawai’i press, 2009.print.

Lee, Jung. Korean shamanistic rituals. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1981.

Owens, Donald. Korean shamanism: its components, context, and functions. New York: University of Oklahoma, 1975.

Pentikäinen, Juha. Shamanism and Northern ecology. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1996.Print.

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